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Polite Computing: Software that respects the user
Brian Whitworth ([email protected]) New Jersey Institute of Technology, New Jersey
Presented at: Etiquette for human computer work, AAAI Fall Symposia Series, 2002, November 15-1, North
Falmouth, Ma.
work, more ideas, more research and more
development. Also when systems are legitimate, and
people trust the system, they self-regulate more. As
they do not have to be forced to do things, this reduces
police and internal security costs (Tyler, 1999).
Psychology studies show people tend to avoid unfair
situations (Adams, 1965), and may even prefer justice
to personal benefit (Lind & Tyler, 1988).
This research proposes that legitimacy percepts underlie
not only community laws but also politeness. If
legitimacy is fairness, then politeness is being more than
fair. If unfair acts destroy the fabric of society, then
polite ones create it. Specifying legitimacy boundaries
for computer based social interaction is proposed to be
the baseline for designing systems that support
politeness. Other conditions are that the parties can
communicate, that action choices are clear, and that
rights can be transferred. Computer system design could
not only support online politeness between people, but
also allow polite computing, where software respects
user information ownership.
(Davis, 2001), the same logic applies to electronic
ones (Schubert, 2000; Weltry & Becerra-Fernandez,
2001). This seems why articles on privacy, libel,
copyright, piracy, trust, trespass, digital signatures, and
other online legitimacy issues, regularly appear the
Communications of the ACM. However though unfair
acts, like stealing or lying. harm society they may give
great personal benefit to those who do them. They are
thus a temptation. Yet if everyone acted illegitimately,
social interaction would no longer be adaptive. The
recent cases of corporate fraud at Enron, WorldCom
and others illustrate how fraud damages the social
system we call “the market”. Legitimate acts are
adaptive for both the group and the individual, while
illegitimate acts benefit the individual but make the
social group less adaptive. If a virtual society needs
legitimacy to be prosperous as much as a physical one,
it seems sensible to carry forward the legitimacy
concepts of physical society to virtual society. To relearn the social lessons of history, often gained at great
cost, in cyber-space, seems both foolish and
unnecessary. To make this transfer means defining
legitimacy and designing computer systems to support
it (Whitworth & de Moor, 2002). From there, it is just
another step to the positive generation of social value –
Legitimacy is here considered a social perception
of what group member actions are “fair” or right, and
also socially beneficial. Our justice system seems a
best attempt to implement this sense of fairness
(Rawls, 2001). Legitimacy is then not just what
everyone does, in a normative sense, but what makes
society productive and adaptive. From Hammurabai’s
laws for governing Babylon, through to the Magna
Carta (1297), the French declaration of the Rights of
Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948),
legitimacy advances have coincided with what can be
called social “health”, the total value generated for the
individuals in a society by that society. As a society
generates more value, it strengthens and grows, but if
it does not, it weakens and falls apart. Social justice
and community prosperity seem to correlate. Historical
argument also suggests that legitimate communities
prosper and endure, while communities that ignore it
do so at their peril (Fukuyama, 1992). From a sociobiological perspective, fairness seems a lesson that
societies must learn to evolve into larger societies, that
can potentially generate more synergistic value
(Diamond, 1998). Reasons are not hard to find, but
mainly involve the intangible social value of trust
leading to the tangible economic gains of cooperation
(Ridley, 1996). Fairness means more people contribute
more because they trust that they will not be cheated or
abused. This means that in a fair society there is more
If legitimacy is the boundary between fair and
unfair, it is the minimum a good citizen should do. But
it is not the maximum. Politeness is proposed to be
when a person, by choice, acts to be more than fair.
Thus while legitimacy is a group obligation not to
destroy trust, one that is likely to be enforced by
sanctions such as fines or prison, politeness is a choice
to create trust. There are no laws and sanctions for
politeness, as it is by nature voluntary. Just as it can be
argued that criminal activity destroys the fabric of a
society, so it can be argued that politeness creates it.
Given this definition, politeness is not simply being
nice or kind. For example, giving money to the poor is
kind, and benefits the community, but is not politeness.
Nor is politeness about inter-personal relationships.
For example, ringing your mother every day to ask
how she is feeling may create a good relationship, but
is not an example of politeness because it is not a
group level issue. It is left up to the individual, as some
mothers want to be called and some don’t. Politeness,
like legitimacy, is about the relationship between the
individual and the group, and the types of interaction
that make communities work. As a group level
activity, politeness can apply regardless of whether
you know the other person. For example, it is polite to
let another go first, and this can be seen on the road
where motorists let pedestrians cross, or allow another
car to enter in a line of cars. In nearly all cases, the
parties do not know each other personally. While
politeness can be part of a personal relationship, it is
more than just a way of getting another person to be
good to you in return. In a large society, most cases of
politeness are not reciprocal. Politeness allows
resolution of interaction conflicts that would otherwise
clog the courts with triviality, or escalate to physical
conflict. While politeness is proposed to be based in
legitimacy and public good, just as legitimacy can be
formalized in law, so politeness can be formalized in
“etiquette” – normative group rules of “good”
behavior. However many see politeness as more than
just fixed social conventions, as being a social good,
and that is the view taken here. In sum, polite actions
have two key properties. Firstly they are group
adaptive, in that if everyone does them the benefits of
social activity increase, and secondly, they are
views, copies and distributes information from our
hard drive without considering to advise us, let alone
request permission. For software to ask, not just take,
seems the exception rather than the rule. The corporate
view that “Your information belongs to us.” seems
based on software might rather than right. When we
ask why software companies do such things, the
answer seems to be “because they can”. This approach
is what leads some to suggest that we are becoming the
“hunter-gatherers in an information age”, people
whom technology has returned to socially primitive
times, where what rules is might not right (Meyrowitz,
1985, p315). The effect in virtual society of unfair
activities is to reduce trust, which negates the immense
possibilities the technology offers. For example, in
2001 President Bush decided not to use e-mail for any
correspondence, and the basic reason seemed to be that
he didn’t trust it. If the President of the United States
does not trust online activity, one can hardly blame the
ordinary person for not doing so. Many people
likewise do not trust online commerce, and hence do
not participate in it. The potential benefits of
technology are unrealized because of lack of trust. At
one level it is an issue of security, of implementing
control. But given security, the question still remains,
who can do what? For example can a seller use
“stealthware”, that follows your mouse clicks as you
surf the web, and adjust their offer price according to
what they think you will pay? No amount of security
can compensate for a lack of legitimacy, as police
states around the world testify. There is developing an
information inequality between buyer and seller, and
while the seller knows more and more about the seller,
from cookies and reading their browser history, sellers
can be quite anonymous. This seems unfair. Until
fairness is restored, buyers are likely to simply stay
away. They have no reason to trust the online
experience. Once implementation issues like security
are resolved, legitimacy issues of who can do what are
likely to loom large. If politeness is a way to increase
trust, then it can be an antidote to this problem. By
respecting their customers and their rights, rather than
taking advantage of them, polite companies may
engender the trust necessary for successful social
interaction. But to do that requires changes in software
The online situation
However current online interactions often seem
neither legitimate nor polite. Examples include Intel's
inclusion of a trackable Processor Serial Number
(PSN) in its Pentium III in 1999, Comet System’s
1998 secret generation of “click-stream” data from
people that used its software, Microsoft’s Windows98
registration secretly sending system hardware IDs and
user details back to Microsoft, and the suggestion that
Microsoft’s Media Player, bundled with Windows XP,
quietly records the DVDs it plays and sends the
information back to Microsoft (Editor, 2002). Our
current performance implementing legitimacy in
virtual environments seems at best weak (PrivacyInternational, 2002). Software adds, deletes, changes,
The power of code
Social requirements, like legitimacy or politeness,
must be designed into computer based social systems
because in them software architecture constrains
social interaction. For virtual societies, who can talk to
who, who sees what, who can create, change or delete
what, etc, is all defined by lines of programmer code.
Social software must define exactly who can do what,
and so must assume what is socially good, a social
world view, whether anarchy or dictatorship (Turoff,
1991). So while designers may not wish it so, a
morally neutral virtual social world seems not an
option (Brey, 1999). That we write the code that
creates online interaction makes this social challenge
different from previous ones. It is as if one could alter
the physical laws of the face-to-face world. Once the
virtual environment is created, traditional ethical, legal
and social forces may be ineffective, e.g. if online
actors are anonymous and invisible, there can be no
social accountability. Imagine the effect of making
people invisible in the physical world! If legitimacy
concepts are not supported in software architecture
design, they may not be possible at all. While
originally the Internet seemed naturally ungovernable,
it now seems that, like Anakin Skywalker, it can be
"turned" the other way - to a system of perfect
regulation and control (Lessig, 1999). To allow this to
happen would be to deny history’s lesson, that
successful societies are fair
The benefit of this, and other legitimacy principles, is a
trusted system, where for example people are not
“cheated” of their effort, and so continue to create
(Stefik, 1997). Privacy seems based on the idea that
people own information about themselves, and release
it only by choice. It has been well argued that privacy
is a public good, as without privacy everyone is
continually subjected to the stress of public scrutiny,
and people cannot act freely (Regan, 1995).
Legitimacy analysis allows principles like copyright
and privacy to be translated into software design
specifications. This, it is suggested, is critical to virtual
social prosperity. Two critiques of legitimate
system design are that perfect legitimacy is impossible,
and that legitimacy is relative. But if perfection were a
condition of action we would have no society. Few
would argue that society’s laws are perfect, yet we
strive to create them. In virtual, as in physical,
communities, some legitimacy is better than none.
Secondly, that laws vary between societies doesn’t
imply the purpose of legitimacy is arbitrary, only that
it is a social problem that can be satisfied by more than
one solution. Legitimacy analysis makes the social
rights implicit in any system design explicit, allowing
users and designers to be clear what rights are and are
not supported. If legitimacy is inherent to politeness,
legitimacy analysis is the basis for designing software
to support online politeness.
Legitimacy analysis
The method of legitimacy analysis, given elsewhere
in detail, involves defining who owns what in the
information system, and concluding what rights of
action the system should support (Whitworth & de
Moor, 2002). Table 1 suggests how common
legitimacy principles can be translated into
programmable system design requirements. For
example, the legitimacy statement that people have a
natural right to the fruits of their labor (Locke, 1690) is
the basis of copy right. It leads to the IS design
requirement that item creators have all initial rights to
the item created (to view, delete, change or display).
Physical Right
Online politeness
In social interaction, politeness takes up where
fixed rules or laws end. Being more flexible, it can
cover the gray areas. For example, if two people in the
physical world approach a door at the same time, there
is a potential “collision”, which can be resolved by
force, by a law, or by politeness. The legitimacy basis
Person represented
Person represented
Destroy, change
Virtual Right
To control their persona
To control personal information
To act on information object owned
Object owner
Context rights
Informed consent
Free speech
To transfer/delegate all/some rights
To initially own a created object
To display an owned item
To attach/display item authorship
To exclude (prevent entry)
To allocate a sub-space
To display in that space
To display in an assumed context
To know if being viewed/recorded
To contribute to group action
To contribute to group discussion
Object owner
Object creator
Item owner
Object creator
Space owner
Space owner
Space owner
Comment owner
Person represented
Group member
Group member
Change, view, destroy,
Display author
Create sub-space
Display in space
Display in context
Display content
Table 1. Selected legitimacy concepts and IS rights
4. Delegation of rights: That parties can formally or
informally transfer rights to other parties.
taking it, select the “Request permissions” option of a
pop-up menu. This would present the available action
choices, which are those the owner is willing to offer.
You choose to request permission to use the material
in your teaching. After selecting Send, a request goes
to the owner, who may be anonymous to you, and may
grant the desired permission, giving both you and they
a record of the agreement. Why bother designing
complicated software to do this? Why not just let
people take what they want? The answer, as always, is
the public good. For the taker, it is a gain, but for the
creator, it is a loss, and a society that does not support
its creators depresses creativity. By contrast, if creators
felt they had some control over what they offered, the
Internet could be a place where one gained value,
rather than a place where one had things stolen. It
would be worth it to create, which is why copyright
came about in the first place. The potential benefits of
the Internet for creativity are more than we can
imagine, but are currently not being realized because
the Internet is not designed for social value. Even
without software support, some people still ask
permission to use material, using e-mail, but a system
supported by software would be so much more
efficient and effective. People want to be polite, but
often lack the software tools to do so.
In the case of two people approaching a door, the
above are obvious and easily achieved. But in virtual
interactions people are typically anonymous,
asynchronous, restricted in action choices to what the
software allows, and the passing of rights is rare. For
example consider posting some creative work on the
web, whether a poem, music, book or a class lesson.
Currently, if another person can see it, they can also
not only download it, and use it without permission,
but even change it, for example to put their name on it,
and distribute it as their own. Most software does not
support digital creator rights in asynchronous
distributed situations, though Acrobat is moving in that
direction. The legitimacy baseline that an item creator
owns the item they created is supported by the largely
normative effect of the community concept of
copyright. There is little code to support this concept.
The next requirement for polite interaction is that the
potential item user can communicate with the item
owner. For example, encrypted owner contact
information could be included in the document.
Thirdly, the action choices need to be available – does
the user want merely to view the item, or to distribute
it? Finally there needs to be some way an item owner
can transfer rights, which in a computer environment
should be recorded. For example imagine seeing
something online you wish to use. Rather than just
Spam, unsolicited electronic mail, illustrates many
of the above points. Firstly it is a serious drain on
productive use of the Web, as users must sift through
the detritus of “junk mail” to find what is important to
them. Sometimes key items are overlooked or deleted
by accident amidst the flood of undesired messages.
Technology allows a spammer to waste everyone’s
time at almost no cost to themselves. Compare how
computers allow a cyber-thief to take a few cents from
millions of bank accounts to steal a sizable sum. Spam
steals not money but time, and when it does so from
large numbers of people, the result is a community
productivity loss of significant proportions. Though
currently not illegal, it seems illegitimate (or unfair).
How seriously people take it is indicated by the fact
that some receivers ban e-mail from ISPs known to
allow spam. Telemarketers seem the telephone
equivalent of spam, generating unwanted telephone
calls instead of e-mail. Again they benefit because
their costs are low, thanks to technology, but the
people whose lives are interrupted find them annoying
time wasters. They destroy politeness, and surveys
show that increasingly people simply hang up without
so much as a goodbye. The inequity of the situation is
clear when telemarketers, who have your home phone
number, invariably refuse to give you theirs. You
cannot call them at home, or even call them back. The
is that the first to the door should enter first. But what
if both arrive at about the same time? If force is used,
the result may be a fight, and the losing party may seek
revenge. Such internecine conflicts are not good for
the social group. Using a law requires an objective
way to determine who was first, or lanes and stop/go
signs as in roadways, which is not practical. A better
solution is to leave it to the politeness of the parties
concerned. In this case both avoid the collision by
withdrawing gracefully, saying “excuse me”, and one
says “after you”, and allows the other to proceed.
Politeness prevents open conflict, which is resolved by
the local consent of the parties involved. If politeness
is a form of social interaction (rather than just being
nice), it seems to require:
1. Legitimacy baseline: That defines the agreed rights
of the parties in the situation
2. Connected parties: That parties are visible to and
in communication with each other (Erickson &
Kellog, 2000).
3. Available action choices: That the action choices
of the parties are known and available to them.
most pernicious of all are those where the caller is a
machine. In New York state, a law has been passed
that telemarketers must be registered, and users may
request not to be called. This law is based on
legitimacy concepts that are evolving, but have not yet
been transferred to the online situation.
trash cans. For example a great deal of Hotmail is
spam. Some users solve the spam problem by changing
their e-mail periodically to remove themselves from
lists, but this also cuts previous social connections.
Until recognized and dealt with, spam can be expected
to be an increasing problem, both for hardware and
Legitimacy analysis asks who owns the personal
address information kept on a spam company’s
database? The concept of privacy suggests that while
the company may hold the information, the individual
who the information is about also owns it. In other
words, people retain rights to personal information
even if it resides elsewhere (Nissenbaum, 1997). It is a
joint ownership situation, which means that either
party can withdraw the item. The company may
remove a person from their database, and the person
may remove their information from the company’s
database. It follows, if this is a right, that it would be
polite to offer to remove people on every interaction,
e.g. “To continue receive product information press
YES To stop further mail press NO”. Some companies
do this, but it requires a different business model, one
based on the customer as a partner rather than as an
object to be used. Impolite actions presume a sellercustomer battle, while polite product mail considers a
willing customer better than one that resists, as
resistors rarely buy anyway.
But a polite retailer might ask, how can customers
even know of an offer unless you first tell them? This
first offer should be regarded as a request to jointly
communicate, an invitation to share ownership of the
sent message. A natural requirement in joint ownership
is that the other party be identified. Also if
communication can only go one way, as with
telemarketers, one is less likely to accept an offer to
interact. Software could be designed to support these
simple requirements. It could indicate which
communications are from identified others, for
example on a registered list, by immediately checking
the list online. It could check which communications
provide valid return addresses by sending a request to
resend message with a unique user code, and rejecting
any messages without it, i.e. it would only receive
messages from senders who also receive. Finally it
could truly reject, rather than place material in the
trash can. Rejected spam messages would be returned
to the sender unopened and unreceived, creating a
problem for their disk space. For a spammer to satisfy
these requirements, they would have to reveal
themselves, which would makes them also susceptible
to spam, and liable to receive back their returned spam.
Moving to a more equal relationship increases the
likelihood of legitimacy and politeness. When spam is
everyone’s problem, everyone is more willing to be
part of the solution. Online society can make it
everyone’s problem by the design of software. Some
may see this as a highly unlikely possibility – why
should a company bother to be polite when they can
bulk mail the world at virtually no cost? The main
reason is that the community requires it for community
prosperity. On a social-evolutionary level, the
individually unlikely possibility of spam control seems
a social inevitability. A society cannot forever allow a
few senders to increasingly consume the time of the
many for an ever decreasing benefit. A society that
cannot prevent illegitimate acts will fail or stagnate.
As societies evolve they must become more adaptive
not less, as the less value social interaction generates
for individuals, the less likely they are to participate in
it. The alternative to a legitimate and polite online
society is no online society. Since it is unlikely the
online community will allow this to happen, given the
huge potential, ways will be found to introduce
How does personal information get on spam
company databases in the first place? One way is that
it is simply stolen, for example from another
transaction, or taken from another list. By contrast,
suppose such companies needed to ask permission to
use personal information. They would need to be
identifiable and contactable, e.g. by being on a
registered list. The action choices involved would be
defined. For example giving a company your contact
details, and the right to send product information, does
not give them the right to pass on or sell that
information to others. Giving a right does not give the
right to further give the right. Finally, when the user
gave permission, a copy would be kept on their hard
drive. Removing themselves from the database at a
later date would be merely a matter of recalling that
permission and changing it. From a business point of
view this could be good not bad. People are more
likely to subscribe to a potentially useful service if
they know they can withdraw. By comparison, people
often buy things because they know they can return
them. Currently users must exercise their choice by
force, for example by email filters. Increasing amounts
of bandwidth and computer time are devoted to
transmitting messages people don’t want, and don’t
even see, because they are moved directly into their
legitimacy and politeness into the online situation.
This paper argues that this requires support at a
software level, which requires that legitimacy and
politeness be specified as IS design requirements. For
businesses, inviting the customer into a partnership
will ultimately be seen as better business than
engaging customers in an electronic information war to
gain an unfair advantage. The customer is not the
It can be argued that while our personal computer
belongs to us, we are too ignorant to understand the
intricate details involved for example in a typical
install. However the same argument could apply to the
installation of a security video system. It is up to the
installer to explain the choices effectively. For
software this means proper structuring or grouping of
choices. Activities essential to application operation
should be separated from optional changes. In these
permissions, as in lawful interaction, the default is not
to grant but to not grant a permission. A permission
requires a positive act. The same support requirements
listed earlier for person-to-person politeness can be
applied to computer-to-person politeness. Firstly there
must be a clear understanding of who owns what, that
defines the rights of the situation. In particular, this
means that it is clear that the user owns their computer.
Second, the parties must be known and able to
communicate. For software, this means making
available a contact e-mail, telephone, address, listing
on a register, or all of these. The software is not just
software, but representing some party who is socially
responsible for it, and what it does. Thirdly the actions
involved in the situation must be clear. If a program is
to place information on the registry, it should state
what, where and for what purpose. These details need
not be presented, but should be available for view, for
example by pressing a Details button. In an
asynchronous environment, they should also be stored.
Finally permission should be given as a delegated right
and a record kept. Both parties are entitle to a copy of
Polite computing
While people know how to be polite, programs, or
the people who write them, seem slower to pick up the
concept. Installation programs not only place
information on your hard-drive, and in your registry,
but may also install themselves in your Startup group
and on the Taskbar, in a way users dislike. For
example RealNetwork’s Real-One Player adds a
variety of desktop icons and browser links, installs
itself in the system tray, and if the user is not very
careful, commandeers all video and sound file
association links. Every time Internet Explorer is
upgraded, it changes the user’s browser home page to
MSN, and adds a series of items to the Links bar, all
without asking. While browsing online, your screen
real estate can be filled with unwanted pop-up
windows, or pop-under windows that must later be
closed. Programs can access your communication line,
even initiating a dial up, without your permission.
Every time we browse the web, programs place
cookies on our hard-drive that we know nothing about
to record what we do. The legitimacy of this situation
is not hard to fathom. You paid for the hard drive, the
screen, the memory and the communication line, so
you should own it, and so ultimately have the right to
decide what happens to it. It is supposed to be your
“personal computer”, so running programs cannot
assume they have the right to access or use anything
and everything they want to, simply because they can.
For an installation program to assume it can do
whatever it wants, is like the people who deliver
furniture assuming they can help themselves to what is
in your fridge because you let them in the door.
Currently, only by third party tools like Black-Ice and
Zone Alarm is a semblance of control wrested from
unwilling programs. Many users are engaged in a war
with their software, removing things they don’t want,
resetting changes they did not want changed, closing
windows they didn’t want opened and deleting e-mails
they didn’t want sent. It does not have to be this way.
We could have polite computing, where if software
wants to change or do anything, it asks first.
The Microsoft Paper Clip is an example of impolite
computing. Suddenly, in the middle of some action by
you, the paper clip took control of your cursor and
asked if you needed help. While the goal seemed
laudatory, many users disliked it, not only because it
took over, but also because it was difficult to disable.
There was no “go away” button on the paper clip itself.
Changing the shape from a paper clip to a friendly
wizard or a dog did not change the fact that it was like
a rude guest who would not leave, no matter how
many times you tried to ignore it. Most Word users
remove it as soon as they learn how. The exception
seems to be very new users, who welcome help when
they don’t know what they are doing. The view that we
are children who need to be controlled by software that
knows better than us is not a long term basis for
human-computer interaction. Even when it is true,
children grow up, and then want to take control of
what is theirs. They want some respect, and politeness
is all about giving other people choices. A trend to
polite computing would be a form of “growing up” by
Regan, P. (1995). Legislating privacy, technology, social
values and public policy. Chapel Hill, NC: University of
North Carolina Press.
computer users, a part of online social evolution. This
is not to say that polite software does not exist. It does.
However because it is not an explicit system design
requirement, it is neither consistent nor reliable. To be
given a “seal of politeness”” software needs to be
designed with that in mind. When software says
“Please may I … ?”, rather than just doing it, when it
asks instead of just taking information, when it returns
control of the computer to the person that owns it, then
we will have polite computing. Who knows, one day
when I willingly give permission to some trusted
software to do something, the software may even say
“Thank you”, to which I will reply aloud – “You are
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